What is Commercial Off-The Shelf (COTS) Software?

Instructor: Lyna Griffin

Lyna has tutored undergraduate Information Management Systems and Database Development. She has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and a Masters degree in Information Technology.

In this lesson, we will examine and define Commercial Off-the Shelf Software (COTS) and the various advantages and disadvantages of using such software.

What is Commercial Off-the Shelf Software (COTS)?

As the name suggests this is software that is sold 'off the shelf.' The 'shelf' normally means the shelf of products in any store, accessible to anyone who walks into the store. Commercial off-the shelf software is therefore defined as the software that is commercially produced and sold in a retail store or online, ready to use without any form of modification by the user, accessible to everyone.

Advantages of Using COTS

Accessible and Easy to Use

COTS is usually very easy to find since it is mass produced for the general public and thereby advertised to the public. It is not custom-made for any group of individuals or organization. These are usually easy to install, need no customization and are accompanied by simple step by step instructions which can sometimes include videos and illustrations, making installation as simple and as smooth as possible for the user.

Customer Care Availability

Unlike freeware, which is free software accessible to everyone and downloadable via the internet, COTS usually offer software support to their customers to address and help users with any issues or questions they may have. In the event that there are errors in the software, a patch may be delivered to correct such errors. Freeware offers no such support.

Quality at Relatively Low-Cost

Because COTS is mass produced, the relative cost is much lower when compared to custom-made software. Producing for the general consumer means making the software as accessible as possible, which means low price points. In addition, the software has been put through many test scenarios and complexities making it highly reliable.

Frequent Improvements and Software Updates

Keeping abreast of the competition in the software market requires that software vendors make constant improvements. As there are no contractual ties with users, it is just as easy for users to pick something else 'off-the shelf' as it is to purchase their product in the first place. These improvements are rolled out to the various users by triggering regular software updates.


Off the shelf software normally offers a diversity of products addressing every conceivable need of consumers. As such many day-to-day applications may be obtained by purchasing COTSs. Applications such as anti-virus programs, word processors, database development applications spreadsheets and more are available off the shelf. Developers have the advantage of tapping into the immense research and information needed to develop the most common and needed applications requested by the masses.

Limited or Trial Versions Available

This is one of the biggest advantages of COTS. Users may have the option of trying every aspect of the software and analyzing its suitability before committing to a purchase. You may be able to test-drive the software before you buy.

Disadvantages of Using COTS


Security takes priority in any organization. Off-the shelf software may have security vulnerabilities that users are unaware of and which could be used to target the wide populace of users of that software.

Missing Requirements

All organizations and individuals tend to have a number of unique requirements dictated by their systems and procedures. Off the shelf software, although covering general processes, may fall short where unique organizational of individual requirements are concerned. Being off the shelf, tweaking or modifying the software is practically impossible and, over time, users may have to rethink their current situation in terms of software requirements and organizational needs. New purchases or software mitigation steps may be inevitable.

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